Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"mediator" in the NT

I'm amazingly behind (as usual) on a number of deadlines. My dissertation comes out with Cambridge University Press this year and I have been going crazy creating its index this last week and a half. I'm helping write some curriculum for the university. And I have a dictionary article on "mediator, mediation" due very, very soon for a Bible dictionary (predestined to be late, it seems).

Anyway, I thought I'd interupt Paul for a few days to process some things in my mind relating to this dictionary article. I thought I'd start by doing a mini-word study here on the Greek word for mediator, mesites. It occurs six times in the New Testament, three of which are in Hebrews.

The earliest two references appear in Galatians: 3:19 and 20:

Why therefore the Law? Because of transgressions it was added until the seed that was promised should come, [and it was] commanded through angels in the hand of a mediator. Now the mediator is not of one, but God is one.

The logic of this second verse has always been puzzling to me. It is generally agreed that the mediator here is Moses ("by the hand of Moses" from Leviticus is echoed here in "by the hand of a mediator). But the big question is, what is Moses mediating between!!!

I had somewhat given up on this argument. I figured it just wasn't very convincing to me. A mediator involves plurality and God is a singularity. Therefore, a directly delivered new covenant is better than a plurally delivered old one. Believe it or not, this seems to be the prevailing interpretation now, even among conservatives!

I've come to realize that there is another option (actually J. B. Lightfoot mentioned over 300 suggestions and that was in the late 1800's). This is an option that sees Moses mediating between God and the angels in the deliverance of the Law. The idea would be that the new covenant comes straight from God, while the Law was connected to the angels. Here we remember that Paul in Galatians also connects keeping the Law to the "elements," often translated as elemental spirits. The implications for Paul's theology of the Law here would be quite immense if this was what he was thinking!

In the light of Galatians 3, 1 Timothy 2:5 is almost ironic:

For God is one. One also is [the] mediator [between] God and mortals, [the] mortal Messiah Jesus.

6) ... the one who gave himself [as a] ransom for all, the witness to our own times 7) for whom I myself was appointed a herald and apostle--I am telling [the] truth; I am not lying--a teacher of Gentiles in faith and truth.

It is less ironic if Galatians means that Moses mediated between God and the angels. 1 Timothy only speaks of Christ mediating between God and humanity. It is possible that this first expression was some sort of pre-existing tradition adopted.

My sense is that we should understand this sort of mediator language against the background of ancient patronage, with Christ serving as a "broker" between God as patron and mortals as clients. It is very interesting that 1 Timothy places Jesus on the man side of the divide here, at least for the purposes of what is being said.

The fact that "I swear I'm not lying" is here seems to imply that this letter is not just for Timothy, for whom Paul would scarcely have to say anything like this.

Hebrews 8:6: "But not he has obtained a more excellent [sacerdotal] ministry, in as much as he is mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted as law on the basis of better promises."

9:15: "And for this reason he is mediator of a new covenant, in order that, [since his] death has occurred for [the] redemption of the transgressions in the first covenant, those who have been called might receive the eternal inheritance."

12:24: you have come "to the mediator of a new covenant, Jesus, and to a blood of sprinkling that speaks better than Abel's."

One question that occurs to me as I read these passages from Hebrews is exactly what Jesus is mediating. I have often taken these verses simply to mean that God introduced the new covenant through Jesus. But it occurs to me that mediation here should probably be understood properly, as Jesus' mediation between God and humanity. The specific type of mediation in view is priestly, and it is worth noting that priestly/sacrificial overtones are present in all three of these verses.

Summary: a mediator is a go between. In Galatians and 1 Timothy, there are no priestly overtones, but these may be significant in Hebrews (my jury's out). In 1 Timothy, I think the overtones are patronal. The word seems to have the least specific meaning in Galatians.


Kevin K. Wright said...

Congrats on the publication of your disseration. I'll look for it in Duke's library and wait to hear one of my classmates say "Well, Schenck thinks that..." Of course they will butcher your name but I'll smile just the same.

Ken Schenck said...

My wife's putting pressure on me to save my two elementary school kids from the traditional pronunciation ;-)

And since her name is Angela Sue, I made an A.S.S. out of her and her name is sometimes read A. Schenck.